Google’s Nexus 7

Every year or so, usually around Google I/O, I like to see what’s new in the Android world. As a big fan of Apple stuff, sometimes it’s easy to get the blinders on and not see what the competition is doing well or differently. With that said, I think that iOS is losing ground as an OS in some ways to Android, and it might actually be a result of focusing too much on Google. Little geeky things like UI customization and control over notifications and intents make the experience in Android land better than that of an iDevice when you pick one up for the first time. The app war still skews heavily towards Apple and will for some time, so it’s not like I’m looking to switch teams or anything, but I am always intrigued by advances in the mobile space. Obviously, there’s a downside to ‘fiddly’, over-customizable systems as well, but I really like what Google is doing with their ‘Google Now’ product, newfound focus on consistent UI, and bringing the Android Market under the ‘Play’ umbrella.

If you’re a tech nerd you’ve no doubt heard about the new Google tablet, the Nexus 7. It’s the same form factor as the Kindle Fire and other 7″ tablets, but this model is straight from Google. Most notable about that is that the latest and greatest software version (‘Jelly Bean’, v4.1) is loaded up and it’s a pretty impressive compared to older versions of the Android software (even 4.0). The other item that is making waves is the price point, a relatively affordable $199 with a $25 Google Play store credit for the 8gb version. Nobody in their right mind is comparing this against an iPad straight up, but this is obviously intended to kneecap the Kindle Fire momentum and get folks thinking about buying a cheaper iPad 2 to take pause. This is a good thing. Competition will force Google, Apple, and anyone else trying to make inroads in the phone/tablet market to push harder to bring consumers what they want.

So, being the gadget geek that I am, I got my hands on a Nexus 7.

I’ve had a little bit of time to mess around with the Nexus and I left intrigued. It’s a fairly well known fact that I’m a bit of an Apple enthusiast – owning an iPad, iPhone, Apple TV, iMac and a few iPods amongst other things will do that – but I’m also not going to blindly bash another product based on that. Admittedly, the pre-4.0 Android phones have, for the most part, been inferior to iPhones for my needs. The OS was slow and jittery, battery life was generally sub par, and build quality was (depending on vendor) cheap. There were exceptions to be sure, but most of the Android-based phones and tablets I used were comically bad. Things have changed a bit since then, however. Google partnered with ASUS to build this tablet and I’ve been pretty impressed with the speed, build quality, and overall look and feel of the device. I really dig the way it feels in your hand – it’s perfect for reading, browsing the web, or checking up on a calendar. There is a rubber backing that is grippy but doesn’t feel cheap.

After a weekend of use, here’s what I can report about not only the Nexus, but also Android 4.1 from the perspective of an iOS user:

Pro

First, the pros. There are a lot of things I really like about the Nexus 7 – it’s fast, the OS is a bit of a change from what I’m used to but overall I like it a lot.

  • The system wide sharing. Any app can opt into this, and it’s really awesome.
  • Background updates for apps like Evernote, Instapaper, etc. Less time manually updating, more time just using.
  • Widgets are kind of gimmicky but a nice option.
  • Obviously the system wide google integration is fantastic.
  • If you are a tinkerer and enjoy tweaking settings, this is the device for you.
  • Google Now seems like a neat idea but I’m yet to see it show up much.
  • $25 Google Play gift cert!
  • Auto updating apps. You don’t need to wait to be told updates are available, the updates just work.
  • I absolutely love the form factor of the device. It’s a fantastic weight and fits in your hand perfectly.
  • In a lot of ways you feel very ‘in control’ of an Android device in ways you don’t an iOS device. This isn’t completely a pro, but it does help with things like downloads, seeing what is killing your battery, etc.
  • Side loading of apps is a really neat feature. I’m still waiting and hoping that Apple implements a feature similar to what we see in Mountain Lion (but I’m not counting on it)

Con

However, it’s not all fun and games. There are a lot of little quality issues and they add up to make a great experience just ‘good’.

  • Keyboard auto complete not as good. The suggestions above the keyboard are nice, however.
  • Text selection in general is fussy and slow. Copying and pasting is a chore.
  • The entire OS isn’t as smooth as iOS is (even with generally beefy specs) and generally feels “cheaper” than an iOS device. ‘Project Butter’ was a big step forward for Android, it scrolling is still not quite there.
  • The lack of good system fonts really shows through. In general, the user is dealing with either serif or sans serif fonts, and that’s all.
  • Back button. I never quite understand where I am going to go when I press the system-wide back button. Maybe this gets easier to understand over time.
  • Speakers are average at best on the device.
  • While Google Music has a web based interface, which I do like, it forces the user to upload ALL of their music to the cloud – there is no “matching” like iTunes Match can do. Took 4 days.
  • This will be addressed soon I’m sure, but most Nexus apps are scaled up versions of phone apps.
  • This is a generalization, but the attention to detail in most Android apps just isn’t the same as you’ll see in iOS.  When you’re dealing with a glass rectangle, software generally trumps hardware.  I feel like iOS software currently trumps it’s Android counterpart.
  • It’s nearly impossible to type in in landscape. This is a portrait device.
  • Holy cow, the iPad seems huge now.
  • In the same vein about being ‘in control’, in other ways you quickly get overwhelmed with preferences, auto-updating settings and other issues that end up killing your battery.
  • Apple got it right with push notifications. Setting each app to auto-update on it’s own schedule is tedious and can slowly kill your battery before you know what happened.
  • Build quality of the Nexus just isn’t up to par of the iPad but considering it’s more than half the cost, this shouldn’t’ be a surprise.  I actually had to return mine due to some ‘ghosting’ issues on the screen.
  • Overall, I admire the open source nature of Android but the bottom line is most of the services that make Android great are not open at all, and could be taken away at any moment (google music, gmail, google calendar, etc). I’m always dealing with a tiny bit of anxiety when working with Google products for this reason. The best apps for Android appear to be the ones bundled with the OS, and for iOS it’s quite the contrary.

Conclusion

It’s going to be hard for anyone to beat what Google has put together at this price point. The device is high quality, fast, and is a fantastic form factor. Using it for a week or so has been a very nice experience, but ultimately one that makes me appreciate iOS even more. There are definitely features and paradigms in the Android world i would love to see in iOS but ultimately things still just feel a little ‘cheap’. I will say this, however: with Android 4.1, it’s the first time I’d be ok with using an android phone if need be. That alone is a huge endorsement of a product that felt like a really, really bad copy of iOS as recently as a year ago.

Things are generally fast and beginning to show a level of polish you’d expect the giant that is Google could produce. I would definitely recommend this device to anyone looking for a nice, affordable tablet.

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